Tuesday, November 21, 2006

History, living and otherwise

A recent theme here and elsewhere has been the debt we owe to history, to a memory of the long past, as well as the obligations we carry towards those who have met that destiny we all face:
Having thought much about this in recent months, I realized just last night that while my work may not save lives in any literal sense, neither does any other work except temporarily, because ultimately we all die. Thus, those of us who work on the past speak for the dead, either as individuals or as cultures. We are all mortal, and we share this mortality with all life on earth; but what makes humans distinct is that we can memorialize, represent, study, and remember the long dead – their culture, their art, their literature, their governments, their disasters and triumphs, their religions, their social practices, their lives – and we, like them, can leave our traces to be so remembered when we are dead. We all die. And so to speak for the dead is to speak for humanity, for the human condition itself, and it is also to be human.

That's Dr Virago at Quod She, whose words have been haunting me since I read them. They were in fact a spur behind this post on JesuslandJerusalem in Orlando, a themepark that freezes time into a single happy moment of redemption, purity, origin, ravishment (all accompanied by, as is proper, singing and dancing). Then Eileen posted this in response to Dr V:
Here's the thing about the dead--rather than have you or anyone else for that matter "speak" for them, they would rather simply be . . . alive. To keep them alive, even through historical writing, is to risk the zombification of the dead [well, not really, literally, but I think Toni Morrison's book "Beloved" is *the* best cautionary tale on the subject--sometimes the dead need to stay really dead so that those in the present with psychic wounds rooted in the past can heal and go forward into the future].

I agree that sometimes the dead need to loosen their stranglehold on the living, especially when that demand is really an attempt at stasis, but I'm wondering if the desire of the dead to be alive that Eileen mentioned, to be kept alive, isn't what this conversation hasn't always been about. Keeping the dead alive --speaking for the dead, for our future selves even -- doesn't create zombies, provided the dead are allowed the very thing that we have in life: continuity, sure, but only within constant change.

19 comments:

N50 said...
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J J Cohen said...

I don't know. If the dead include ourselves (as Dr V points out, you don't have to look far into the future before there we be) then we literally owe it to ourselves to ensure the past its vitality (including honesty and integrity). We also owe the future, the time when we are dead, the possibility of difference from these pasts and presents.

As a parent, I think a lot about what I, while alive, can do to ensure that when the day of my death arrives my children have something good of me to keep for the future. And that the love I have for them endures beyond that death.

Karl Steel said...

Quickly, while trying to track down some material to understand our various discussions of the past and present better, I ran across the October 2006 issue of History and Theory. I think it would be of much interest to some of our writers/readers. I've had energy to read only a few articles from it, but I thought the Ewa Domanska, "The Material Presence of the Past" was especially good. A few highlights:

"Besides, discussions about the relations between the human and the nonhuman, the organic and the inorganic, and people and things, show that the anthropocentric character of history construed as 'the science of people in time' (Marc Bloch) is too narrow. Required is an approach that might be called 'a non-anthropocentric history' or 'post-human history.' This kind of history distances itself from a humanist conception that places human beings at the center of the world; instead, it considers humankind as one among many organic and non-organic beings existing on the earth" (338). (especially useful, I think, for my thinking about corpses and carcasses and animals in general)

I also liked Domanska's use of Greimas's semiotic square. As a historian, Domanska distinguishes between, of course, the present and the absent, but also between the non-absent ("(whose absence is manifest") and the non-present ("whose presence is not manifest"). In her discussion of the Mothers of the Disappeared, Domanska writes

Through focusing on the non-absent past, "we avoid the desire to presentify and represent the past, and instead we turn to a past that is somehow still present, that will not go away or, rather, that of which we cannot rid ourselves. The non-absent past is the ambivalent and liminal space of 'the uncanny'; it is a past that haunts like a phantom and therefore cannot be so easily controlled or subject to a finite interpretation. It is occupied by 'ghostly artifacts' or places that undermine our sense of the familiar and threaten our sense of safety. This is a conceptual space where I would like to see the missing bodies of the desaparecidos. The trace-being--the missing body--possesses a kind of power of absence, where I use the word 'power' deliberately to refer to the magic and mysteriousness of the past that is not absent" (346).

N50 said...

Karl - Processualism - placing humans and their technology as just one aspect of environmental ecosystems was big in archaeology in the 60s and 70s. It fell from grace (a little) but the times recently have certainly been ripe for its revival - especially as more non-archaeologists grapple with the material world and our place in it.

JJC - But it is interesting how anger is one of the emotions of bereavement and often directed at the dead. Does it have a place in History's treatment of the dead too? I'm off now - this is my last opportunity for 'non-concentration' for a couple of weeks at least.

J J Cohen said...

Karl, great quotes.

N50: I think in a way your query -- quite a good one, since this discussion was framed as one about the care of the dead (and, as Eileen points out, that phrasing makes assumptions that cannot handle the cases in which the dead merit their inertia or oblivion) -- is answered in part by Karl's citation of Domanska. But medieval materials alone would allow us to go further: rage against the dead (such a human reaction to loss, even of loved one) can be glimpsed in, for example, the aptrgangr or revenant of the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes these undead are foreigners who earn no place in community while alive or deceased; at other times (I am thinking of Kar the Old in Grettir's saga) they are figures who even in death provide nothing for their survivors -- retentive of everything, withholding in a way that would keep their offspring stuck in time. What else can you do but invade their grave, steal the treasures they keep too close, slice off their heads and snuggle the nose into the cadaver's buttocks? Utter humiliation, a shaming and rebuke that keeps them forever still: the only way to truly kill them off and prevent the zombie-effect of a frozen and changeless past that intrudes into a present yearning for freedom, for change, for a history that lives rather than one that only seems alive.

Eileen Joy said...
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Eileen Joy said...

A couple of things [or maybe more--don't count]:

Although I didn't respond immediately, Dr. Virago's statement, or really, epiphany, that the fact of our *shared* mortality, along with our [mainly] human possession of language, provides a kind of axis along, and around which, we can [perhaps] found a meaningful humanist scholarship, resonates deeply [and possibly unintentionally] with some of the most important work being done now in political philosophy and sociology, where some scholars have been trying to devise ways to cut through certain theoretical impasses regarding questions of human-ness, the self, identity, the polis, and ethics. This is an area in which I find I have been doing most of my reading lately, looking, frankly, for some kind of theoretical sustenance that I can perhaps carry back to my work with Old English literature.

In sociology, the very recent work of Bryan S. Turner, I think, could prove valuable to medieval scholars such as Dr. Virago who are thinking about mortality vis-a-vis the project of defending humanistic-type scholarship more generally, and medieval studies more particularly. In just the past couple of years, Turner has been writing essays that seek to connect the theme of vulnerability [as Turner puts it, the fact of bodies always being available for wounding] to some kind of universalized ethics and the institutions that might ensure those ethics. But Turner is also concerned that the emerging plasticity of the body [via biotechnology and other scientific innovations aimed at prolonging and altering humanly embodied forms of life] will change the nature of how we think/re-think human vulnerability [what if, for instance, mortality ceases to exist as a *universal* condition and only applies to some?]. But in his most recent book, "Vulnerability and Human Rights" [Penn. State Press, 2006], Turner argues that the *only* basis on which it will be possible to found human rights is the fact of our shared political/institutional "precariousness" and vulnerability to harm/death.

What I would *really* recommend, though, as a quick way to see how political theorists are contemplating post-foundational foundations [yes, that's kind of oxymoronic, but it relates big-time to a lot of our discussions on this blog regarding how we can maybe formulate ontologically-grounded arguments for why we do what we do], is to check out the special issue of The Hedgehog Review, entitled "Weak Ontologies," which comprises essays addressed to Stephen White's groundbreaking book, "Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory" [Princeton Univ. Press, 2000]. Here is how White described his project, which I think really pertains to a lot of what we often struggle with on this blog:

"One can start and stop arguments in support of one's political affirmations in all sorts of ways. A single discrete argument may be all that is called for to sustain my affirmation of, say, some democratic practice. But we are sometimes pushed to keep extending and thickening the context of justification; and we think of such activity as enriching the persuasiveness of our position. This movement, by which a specific claim is progressively embedded within a constellation of basic concepts and commitments is what has been understood traditionally in political theory as providing 'foundations.' But the recourse to foundations has, of course, come under sustained attack in recent years from a variety of quarters. Like many others, I have been deeply influenced by such critiques; and yet I find that I have been just as deeply convinced that they are misleading insofar as they sometimes seem to imply that ethical and political theory can simply do without some basic conceptualization of being; that is, of self, other, world, the beyond human.

The underlying hunch of [my book is that] . . . ongoing affirmation in political theory requires both the articulation of basic categories of being and the cultivation of a sensibility as to their irredeemable contestability . . . ."

White analyzes the ideas of four major thinkers in his book: Judith Butler, George Kateb, Charles Taylor, and William Connelly, in order to show that, for all their anti-foundational or even theist [in the case of Taylor and Kateb] posturing, all four are committed to some kind of "affirmative," yet "weak" ontological view of the world that leaves itself open to reformulation through further critique. Here is how the political theorist Jane Bennett puts it:

"Weak ontology is Stephen White's term for an emerging genre of political theory that engages in reflection about human being and the fundamental character of the world. What distinguishes weak ontologists from traditional metaphysicians is that the ontological commitments of the former are presented as essentially contestable, as narratives 'whose persuasiveness can never be fully disentangled from an interpretation of present historical circumstances.' White understands the ontological turn as a response to the criticism that critical theory (in its generic sense) has not done enough to elaborate an affirmative response to the moral dangers and political injustices it exposes."

We can see [I hope] how White's ideas regarding "weak ontology" can open a kind of door in the impasse that often seems to exist between postmodern post-foundational theory and more avowedly "humanist" philosophies. Indeed, I would argue that it provides us here at In The Middle with an important means for both acknowledging the limitations of speaking for the dead, while also insisting on its importance [if that importance is argued as part of a commitment to a deep philosophical reflection upon "being"--past, present, and future--in other words, upon the relation(s) between identity and history].

Now back to Dr. Virago's comments [again], by way [again] of Stephen White, who writes in his book:

"Weak ontologies do not proceed by categorical positings of, say, human nature or telos, accompanied by a crystalline conviction of the truth of that positing. Rather, what they offer are figurations of human being in terms of certain existential realities, most notably language, mortality or finitude, natality, and the articulation of 'sources of the self.' These figurations are accounts of what it is to be a certain sort of creature: first, one entangled with language; second, one with a consciousness that it will die; third, one that, despite its entanglement and limitedness, has the capacity for radical novelty; and, finally, one that gives definition to itself against some ultimate background or "source," to which we find ourselves always already attached, and which evokes something like awe, wonder, or reverence. . . . When I speak of 'existential realities,' I mean to claim that language, finitude, natality, and sources are in some brute sense universal constitutives of human being, but also that their meaning is irreparably underdetermined in any categorical sense. There is, for example, simply no demonstrable essence of language or true meaning of finitude. Weak ontologies offer figurations of these universals, whose persuasiveness can never be fully disentangled from an interpretation of present historical circumstances. Fundamental conceptualization here thus means acknowledging that gaining access to something universal about human being and world is always also a construction that cannot rid itself of a historical dimension."

Now, is just me, or does it sound like there is an awful LOT medieval scholars could do within the parameters White outlines above, both in terms of our individual scholarship and also for the ways we might want to argue our relevance to the administrative higher-ups? [And yeah, I know Stanley Fish gave us permission to NOT have to make that argument, but still . . . .]

Eileen Joy said...

And now for some more pessimistic musings on the subject of Dr. Virago's "Speaking for the Dead." I offer, as exhibit A, this poem by the late Zbigniew Herbert, from the book "Elegy for the Departed and other poems" [trans. from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter]:

The Dead

Because they were closed in dark, airless chambers, their faces have become completely recast. They would like to speak, but sand has eaten away their lips. Only from time to time do they clench the air in the fist, and try clumsily to raise the head, like infants. Nothing makes them happy, neither chrysanthemums nor candles. They can't reconcile themselves to this state, the state of things.


I would also pose the question to N50, why on earth do you hold the dead liable for what they may not have done, or should have done? We are not anyone's "offspring," if we choose not to be. But I also think I'm responding to your initials comments in this thread a bit too literally. But when you say that "the role of history (of the dead) is to enable us each individually and collectively to reach a civilised majority," you are also implying something of a belief in a progressive history, one that builds on past legacies and knowledges gained in past, hard-fought struggles. So, if Sunni archivists are kidnapped in Baghdad, similar to the Khmer Rouge killing doctors and teachers in Cambodia, or the Taliban demolishing Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in the not so distant past, we are to assume that those who are intent on writing "new" presents [which is also the same as writing new histories] have a vested interest in erasing the traces of a counter-history [the ultimate idea being, the dead always have something important to tell us relative to the staving off of yet another tyranny or political oppression]. But how to know when to read/know *against* the counter-history, and for what ends? How, in other words, can you break with that stasis of the past, as JJC phrases it [viz. Icelandic zombies], such that you can see all of the endlessly moving currents of the directions it didn't take, but which were always possible?

David said...

Nice post and good discussion. I'm concerned about what seems to be the growing belief on the part of many--including, oddly, many whose profession is "educator"--that we have little to learn from the past. More thoughts at my post Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry.

Anonymous said...

I just received a mass email from emile that I find disturbing. In it, he informs us that all comments he makes here in this forum will be removed. The reason I find this disturbing is I think censorship is almost never justifiable. It might be justifiable if used to protect those who cannot protect themselves (children, eg). But in this case censorship appears to be justified by the fact that emile made the apparent mistake of questioning something that JJC has published. I read the comment that was banned (emile included it in the email), and I want others to know that there were no ad hominen attacks (in fact it is complimentary toward both n50 and Dr. Virago) and that it was addressed to n50 as a response to her question about the role of anger in history. The comment did, however, argue that emotions are largely avoided in historical work, and that something that JJC had written was an example of this avoidance. I can’t debate the merits of emile’s claim, but apparently neither can others now.

It’s sad to me to see this silencing practiced here. And it is interesting that those who write about difference can be the least tolerant of it.

J J Cohen said...

It's true, Anonymous. I did tell Emile Blauche that I didn't want him to post here anymore. I did inform him that I would delete his comments. I meant it.

I don't want to rehash the whole story, much of which is not known in this forum. It didn't have to do with the post in question; it was about his posting here in general.

I stand by my decision, even as I realize that many readers will find it unacceptable. I admit that it does expose the limitations of this blog, and I think it would be easy to turn such a decision into a narrative about how I am in fact a totalitarian who brooks no dissent. I realize it will make some readers no longer want to read this blog, to devalue it and move on. I'm saddened by that possibility, but I do accept that it may happen.

I didn't come to the decision lightly, and even after ruminating over it for many weeks I am not 100% secure in it. But I do believe in the end that I have made the right choice. I apologize to those in my readership who think otherwise.

Anonymous said...

As a neutral party (I know JJC and emile only through their publications), I am dismayed by the banishment of a poster who has made some valuable contributions here.

Just as I doubt JJC is a totalitarian, I doubt emile is the disrupting force that he might be taken to be. There should be room for debate, for disagreement, and critique, even if the latter does not always reflect flatteringly on those who can (with a magical wave of their hand) silence the critic. I hope that JJC can see his way to extending a hand to emile.

kofi said...

I'm going to have to side with JJC on this one. While Emile had seemed to mellow out a bit lately, the truth is that while his posts were often informed, erudite, and generally smart, they were as often rude, condescending, and not the type of comment that would generate dicussions or new ideas, but rather just meant to insult people, people who he doesn't even really know.

Censorship is one thing. Banning someone who constantly insults his interlocuters is another. I have no more problem with this than I would with a professor who kicks a brilliant, but disruptive and insulting, student out of their class. It's not that that student can't be insulting and disruptive if he/she wants to be - just not in certain contexts.

Just my $0.02

kofi said...

ps - please excuse the grammatical errors in my last post. It was written hurriedly just as I realized I was about to be late for class.

Karl Steel said...

My quick, post Turkey 2 cents: it's not censorship, pure and simple, if the 'censored' party has, as EB does, equal access to the power to transmit ideas. Anyone can set up a blog; nothing prevents another blog from being read; given net neutrality, every blog can be accessed with equal facility. That is to say, for various technological reasons, banning a commenter on a blog is not equivalent, say, to destroying your political opponents' printing presses, nor is it even equivalent to kicking out the brilliant but disruptive student.

J J Cohen said...

Anonymous, I don't know what else to say other than that readers can decide for themselves whether I, like Jove with a thunderbolt, have silenced a commentator for the mortal sin of criticizing my work .... or if in fact I am telling the truth in saying that Emile has a stultifying effect on conversation here. Look back at the blog's archive since May: commentary tends to burgeon in his absence, and dwindle to a circumscribed and repetitive conversation (him, me, Eileen, Karl) in his presence.

I would like to think that I have no problem at all with critique of my work (it has never struck me that I have), and that this is not the issue here.

Again, I may be wrong. Emile, here and in private emails, urges me to own up to my failings (among which he numbers cowardice, narcissism, and an inability to think outside of my own self-replication). He insists that he confronts me with these failings for my own good, for the blog's good. I leave it to my readers to come to their own conclusions.

Lastly, I want to add to what Karl has said: despite deploying that epic simile about Zeus and lightning at the beginning of my comemnt, I possess neither the ability nor the power to silence Emile. I have repeatedly urged him to start his own blog, and have offered to link to it here. He is a smart man with many valuable things to say (i was an evaluator for his tenure case several years ago; I've read almost everything he's written, and know how well good it is). I cannot imagine that he has been rendered speechless by me.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I have some very sad news. Emile has
suffered a massive heart attack, and is in a coma
state.

I called his cell phone this morning and it was
answered by his spouse who told me that emile was
working at the ER (where he does psychology consults)
and collapsed at about 4:30 this morning. The
prognosis is not good. The sound of emile's daughter
(age 7) crying in the background was overwhelming.

Why am I posting this here? Well, for the reason that
emile would have wanted it. I had a conversation with
him about two weeks ago in which he talked about his
journal, and he said, "You know I was journaling about
my experiences there [this blog], and I know they
think I'm a complete asshole, but I really hold the
lot in high regard." Then he said, "I hope I can
convey that at the right time."

Maybe now is the right time.

kofi said...

Well said Karl - much better than my grad student analogy.

And if the news of Emile's heart attack is indeed true, anonymous, please pass along my (and, I'm sure, all of our) condolences. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, which Emile certainly is not.

And along with Jeffrey, I'm also an admirer of Emile's work, and in fact have cited him several times in my own book. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to meet him in person to see if we can carry on a more civilized argument face to face, as two people who know him have suggested to me that he might be different in person.

And as for Jeffrey not being able to take critique of his own work - whenever Emile attacked Jeffrey's work, he responded in a professional way by defending his ideas and providing counter-arguments, often ignoring the insults with which Emile's comments were peppered. Jeffrey only really got annoyed, as far as I can tell, when Emile started insulting everyone who posted here.

Anyway, it seems that this discussion has run its course. We can all decide for ourselves, based on our experiences in this blog, how to read and react to this situation.

Cheers all

J J Cohen said...

I am so deeply saddened to hear that news about Emile.

I will keep him and his family in my good thoughts, and I ask readers of this blog to do likewise.

What sad, sad news.